ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 16 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Automated Launch Triggers

by William Shoebotham, U.S.A

On the eve of the re-introduction of electronic aids at next week's Spanish Grand Prix, everybody is talking about the legal return of traction control. If you thought that would stop the rumours about teams cheating, think again. William Shoebotham, an automotive engineer, explains how another gray area could damage the sport

Traction control will be legal in Formula One starting at the Spanish Grand Prix, due to the difficulty to detect it or even define it. Legalisation is a regrettable but necessary measure to eliminate this gray area. However, legalisation to fix this problem won't change human nature, and teams will not stop exploiting imprecisions in the rules; they will merely seek out the next most productive gray area to explore.

Automated launch systems could mean the end of exciting Grand Prix startsIf every car on the grid has well-optimised traction control then start line accelerations will be very similar. The cars will not be able to accelerate harder than the competition, but they can always try to accelerate sooner. The reaction lag of the driver at the start could be eliminated with an automated launch trigger that sensed when the start lights went out and initiated the launch.

The automated launch system could use a small optical sensor located anywhere on the front or top of the car. Teams know after qualifying exactly where their cars will be on the grid relative to the start lights, and the optical sensor can be aimed accordingly. In the final seconds before the race the five start lights are sequentially turned on, which would serve as a convenient moment for the onboard computer to calibrate the optical system. When the start lights went out the trigger system would launch the car and return control to the driver a moment later.

The time advantage provided by an automated launch trigger depends on how long the normal driver reaction times are. Fortunately, good comparisons are available to estimate these reaction times.

American professional drag racing starts its races with a light system similar to F1. When both cars are staged in the correct position a yellow light comes on to signal an imminent start. After a random interval the green light comes on to start the race. However, if car movement is detected within the first 0.4 seconds after the green light has gone on, then that car is disqualified for a false start. The rationale is that the driver takes at least 0.2 seconds to react to the light, and the car takes at least 0.2 seconds to react to the driver. The presumption is that any getaway within 0.4 seconds of the start must be the result of a fortuitously timed false start.

Professional track and field uses a similar system. Sensors in the starting blocks determine when a runner begins to push off. If a runner pushes off within the first 0.1 seconds after the starting gun fires then a false start is presumed. This was famously demonstrated at the 1996 Olympic 100-meter dash when Linford Christie was disqualified for a false start even though he left after the gun was fired.

These examples suggest that an advantage of 0.2 seconds might be gained from an automated Formula One launch trigger. But is this enough to be significant? A 0.2 second advantage into a medium speed first turn at 100 miles per hour (160km/h) would result in a distance advantage of 8.9 meters. Grid spaces are only 8 meters apart so the advantage can be thought of as a free position at the most competitive moment in the race.

FIA regulations don't comment specifically on the legality of automated launch systems. The sporting regulations explain that "the race will be started by extinguishing all red lights." The technical regulations contain the usual requirement that the driver must drive the car "alone and unaided," a phrase increasingly open to interpretation. The FIA may decide to specifically ban automated launches because they are unsafe or unsporting.

When gray areas become black they don't go away, they simply continue as potential cheating. A tiny optical sensor located in the engine airbox or radiator duct could be made to look like a pressure sensor, a temperature sensor, or any number of other legitimate gadgets. Teams could even remotely trigger the system by sending a radio signal to an integral receiver in the car's computer. The FIA would be back to policing sensors and computer code, the impossible tasks that led to the legalisation of traction control in the first place.

The sporting regulations give the FIA authority to impose a time penalty for "a false start judged using an FIA supplied transponder." The FIA might choose to judge these false starts with the 0.4-second standard from American drag racing. This would reduce the advantage of using an automated launch trigger, but it wouldn't eliminate it. Triggers would incorporate a time delay to provide launches in the minimum legal time, and they would hit this minimum time more consistently than the drivers could. This might lead to bizarre starts where the extinguished start lights would trigger automated launch systems on all cars that would then hold the entire grid for the requisite moment before sending them on their way in perfect unison. One of the most exciting moments in Formula One could be lost to computer chips.

This raises larger issues of gray areas and rules enforcement. Is it desirable to specify everything that can and can't be done or does this limit technical creativity? Is it even possible to clarify these gray areas if compliance increasingly depends on policing electronic systems? These issues will not be easy to resolve anytime soon, but the FIA may have to deal with them after the first 0.2 seconds of this year's Spanish Grand Prix.

William Shoebotham© 2007
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William Shoebotham has a Batchelors of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from The University of New Mexico. He created suspension kinematics software for an Albuquerque company called Auto-Ware, and is currently employed as an automotive engineer for Altair in the Detroit area.

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